Turning Over a New Leaf: Handling Moral Failure

Well, it’s the second week of January, which means we’re all probably already dealing with feelings of failure.

Last year, I set a new year’s resolution for myself to lay off soda for a full year, but by June, I was already back on the sauce.

Have you ever noticed how we save a lot of grace for ourselves when we fail while we tend to be harder on others? This is especially true when we have a leader in the church who morally fails. Is it any wonder why they kept it a secret? Why didn’t they get help?

Many pastors and lay leaders believe that those who offer to help them aren’t actually interested in restoration or reconciliation as much as they are eliminating a problem while covering their own bases. Leaders have to remember that this scared person under their charge also needs a gracious friend to help them get through it.

I should also say that I’ve seen many churches handle this with a LOT of grace! I think of Mars Hill trying to work things out with Mark Driscoll and am reminded that there are churches trying to do this right.

So, when you have a lay leader or someone on staff that morally fails, here are a few thoughts about handling it.

The First 24 Hours

Remember that restoration should be your goal. No matter what this person has done, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-21) and it applies to staff members and lay leaders of churches too.

Enlist the help of your direct supervisor.

If you’re the pastor, get someone you trust on the elder or deacon board that can help you pray through the next steps with you. Do NOT try to handle it on your own. Trust me, your intentions might be noble, but they won’t be seen that way later. You’ll be almost an accomplice in the church guard dog’s eyes.

Pray together about next steps

Spend time praying together with your teammate about how God would have you proceed. Remember that your first duty is to care for that person who has failed. Spend the day processing before meeting with your supervisor again to discuss next steps.

Establish a Plan

With your supervisor, develop a set of guidelines for going forward, such as “If when confronted they are humble and apologetic, then….” Or “If when confronted they are defiant, then….” You will listen to the Spirit during the conversation, but having a plan ahead of time that has been developed in Biblical community and prayer is better. Don’t forget to include a plan for what and how you’re going to communicate to your congregation.

A good rule of thumb is that at someone from the next two levels above the offender should be involved. If it’s the youth pastor who needs to be confronted, the pastor may take the executive pastor to confront, but the elder board should be involved.

If it’s a student intern, then the youth pastor and the senior pastor deciding next steps would probably suffice. However, even in that situation, the elder board should still be notified of anything requiring church discipline, but their involvement isn’t always necessary in the execution. Maybe execution isn’t the right word to use there…

During Confrontation of a Leader in Moral Failure

Based on your plan, decide on removal or suspension

First of all, this part should also not be done alone. You will need the testimony of two or more witnesses to Biblically confront a leader with moral failure, so take your supervisor. Also, take your thick skin, because you’ll need to be really discerning here and you need to be able to see the situation as objectively as you can.

According to what you have decided and depending on how the leader responds to being confronted, make the decision whether to seek dismissal or a path to reinstatement.

If reinstatement is an option, establish a timeline

You will need to talk with your leadership team of elders/deacons to approve this, but decide on a time frame, check in intervals, and what personal work should be accomplished before reinstatement.

You might set up a series of meetings or require Covenant Eyes to be installed on their computer with you as the accountability partner. Whatever you decide must be done (and they agree to), you must also set up a final evaluation date.

In six months time, you can meet again with the elders to report and discuss reinstatement. That is where you will create a plan to reinstate and communicate the reinstatement to your church.

You also will want to establish a new set of guidelines after the reinstatement to help your fellow minister stay on target. They will need all the love and encouragement they can get.

If dismissal is the only option…

Inform the minister of the news personally. Don’t send this sort of thing via text, email, or even by phone. Write up an official letter of dismissal to give to them, but deliver it in person.

After all, you’re not only taking their job away, you are forcing them to find a new way to support their family while at the same time, the reasons for dismissal have made it difficult to find a new ministry position.

I would hope that by the time you reach this point, no one is surprised by the outcome. If they are shocked that you dismissed them, you’ve not been very clear or direct in your communication strategy with them.

Since reconciliation and restoration are still the goals, even at this point, it would be a proper gesture to offer a severance package. Depending on the issue, your church could also take on a few bills to help the fallen leader get the help he/she needs for a period of time. Just because the person doesn’t work at your church anymore does not mean that they are no longer under your pastoral care.

Remember that old song? Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see!

That’s the story you want to tell when it’s all said and done. So when your leaders fail, you may need to remove them from a role or responsibility, or you may be able to have them take a step back, get help, and step back in even stronger before.

Regardless of the action you take, we’re in reconciliation business, so keep that front and center. Whether the fallen leader responds positively or negatively to accountability, knowing that you did everything you could to help them make it right will help you move forward as a church family stronger, rather than limping down the road for years to come.

I’m sure I didn’t cover it all. What are your suggestions for handling a leader who fails? Contribute to the conversation in the comments.

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  • John Miller

    ” Just because the person doesn’t work at your church anymore does not mean that they are no longer under your pastoral care.”

    I love this concept, Seth. It’s very easy to think we are pruning, rather than caring for a lost sheep. I know a few churches in my area that have been rocked by scandal, and not one of them have been reconciled. Each one has been pruned.

    While I hope I never have to use this guide with any fellow pastoral staff, I appreciate it’s trajectory toward atonement. Nice work!

    • Seth Muse

      Thanks Jon! I hope that for you too.

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